The National Government Coalition

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‘Given the temporary and emergency character of the arrangement’ (N.Chamberlain), why did the National Government formed in 1931 last so long?

The nine year premiership of the National Government of 1931 was an unprecedented and unique phenomenon in twentieth century peacetime British politics. Although it is now looked upon less than favourably by historians and political scientists alike, it was an enduring government which could well have continued into another term had World War Two and the rise of Churchill been avoided by the National Government; although whether another term in office would have been beneficial to Britain is another matter. It is a common conception amongst historians that a coalition government with such a large majority as the National Government should be doomed to failure, as it is often cited that the only coalitions with any real hope of longevity are those who are placed in the circumstances of ‘minimal winning’. Surely then, a National Government which was at its core a coalition with a majority of 550 could not prosper in Britain. On the contrary however, it would produce another election win, and incorporate the office three prime ministers.

The first aspect of the National Government which contributed to its nine year term in office would be the way in which it was portrayed, rather than as a coalition, as a party in its own right under one party name. The National Government was presented to the electorate as such, and not a result of a hung parliament, which immediately gave it credibility, in that it was elected for outright by the people, and not the politicians themselves as in today’s Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. It is an idea sometimes presented that ‘once it is clear a country is electorally fragmented’ it makes sense to ‘institutionalise this’. It was clear at the time of the government’s formation that opinion was divided, and it made sense for the party’s at the time to incorporate this into their election campaign.

In merging large segments of the main political parties, the National Government also significantly weakened it’s opposition in terms of the remaining Liberal and Labour parties, both of which were depleted and, with Labour being on the back of a ‘disastrous exit from office’ and ‘in deep difficulty’ following their short unsuccessful term in office, as the Liberal party ‘disintegrated’, as Lloyd George at one point even refused to sign a Liberal manifesto. Mosley was probably the most substantial threat to the National Government, as dictatorships fascist and otherwise gripped mainland Europe, but his fascist party never really took off in Britain as suspicion and dislike towards communism and dictators grew. Mosley created the New Party, which whilst initially popular waned in popularity as it leaned further toward fascism. He later founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932, which whilst initially caused a stir, dropped massively in the run up to the 1935 election to the extent it would not even able to stand for government in it. Whilst here it appears Mosley was perhaps more successful in further splitting the remaining Liberal and Labour votes, and clearing the way further for the Conservative-dominated National government, it was his ideas which threatened most sincerely. Perhaps had his ideas of fascism been displayed less militantly, such as in Cable Street in 1936, they would have appealed more to a desperate, economically crushed Britain. This weakening of the opposition also allowed them to avoid an early election, and therefore time to establish itself.

An interesting point is brought to mind by Forsyth in terms of the shape of Westminster’s benches. Winston Churchill is quoted in reference to the House of Commons that ‘we shape our buildings, and our buildings shape us’. By this he meant that the House of Commons layout (two opposing benches rather than the considered circular designs) commanded two-party-politics, with a...
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